by Teslim Ikharo
It’s interesting to think that Oakland’s first mayor, Horace Carpentier, is commonly referred to as a “squatter” who illegally sold small plots of West Oakland land in the early 1850s. He lived communally with family members, including his sister Alice, the namesake of Alice Street in Oakland.
His aim, many say, was to strike it rich during this region’s gold rush. His legal training helped him when he persuaded the newly formed California state legislature to incorporate Oakland as a town.
He then used his skills to persuade the town’s trustees to pass an ordinance that gave him exclusive control of Oakland’s waterfront. He vigorously represented the Peralta family in their effort to maintain their holdings. He was a major beneficiary, becoming a major landowner himself.
This small piece of West Oakland history is interesting in light of recent trends related to low-income and homeless populations in the city. Those experiencing homelessness are viewed as squatters, occupying lands they don’t own. Unlike the elite status reached by early settlers in the area, those experiencing homelessness have rushed to collect the modern-day gold of the streets — recyclable materials including metals, glass, plastic bottles and aluminum cans — hoping to earn an honest, independent living. None have made out as well as Mr. Carpentier, however. Most are being pushed out by forces that are out of their control.
As explained in Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush’s documentary, Dogtown Redemption, West Oakland’s Alliance Recycling has provided a source of income to the area’s most downtrodden and hopeless. Many of those going to redeem their recyclables for cash have experienced unresolved traumas from earlier life experiences. The families of these individuals have often been perpetrators, not protectors, causing deep wounds that are often filled with alcohol, drugs, and prostitution.
Could I blame them? Yes. Do I? No. As Director of Business Enterprise for Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), one of my roles is to develop social enterprises and jobs for our clients.
The combined social and entrepreneurial component makes the work challenging, but I can honestly say that these companies will help improve the lives of its employees and the greater community at large. We understand that it takes a community to help those amongst us that are struggling and have been victimized.
As Alliance Recycling plans to shut down later in August due to neighborhood complaints, I propose a community-focused alternative: keep Alliance Recycling open and let a nonprofit manage its operations so that this vital source of economic independence is still available.
Additional social services could be provided out of this location so that the facility is transformed from one that “encourage[s] theft, and a way to easily turn stolen goods into cash,” as Matt D. vehemently writes in his Yelp review of Alliance, into a place of healing and opportunity. The space could be transformed into a healthy place with many healthy fruits and vegetables provided by nearby City Slicker Farms.
The point is that we have lots of riches in Oakland if we come together as a community and view our neighbors as just that — neighbors — and not squatters.
Many of those experiencing homelessness have hearts of gold that have not been mined, minds that have not been tapped, and spirits that have not been explored. Our true potential as a community will come from our ability to see the so-called squatters as formidable mayoral candidates.
Tes Ikharo works as Director of Business Enterprise for Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency in Berkeley.